How to Shoot an American Quilt

View of a quilt on a quilt frame, seen from behind a camera tripod.

Our makeshift photography studio

When Digital Services was asked to provide images for an upcoming book on longtime donor Wade Hall’s amazing array of archival collections, most of the requests were fairly standard: book covers, documents, and photos. Even the occasional 8-Track box or daguerreotype wasn’t all that far afield from the usual digitization lab fare. What was totally out of our realm of experience, though, was the quilts.

A couple of weeks ago, Jeremiah and Claire temporarily turned the office into a photo studio in order to capture images of seven very different pieces from the the Wade Hall and Gregg Swem American Quilts Collection. Jeremiah is our digital photography guru and Claire is herself a quilter, so they made a good team. Here’s what they reported about the quilts themselves and the process they used to shoot them.

The Quilts

As in the case of many Wade Hall collections, we don’t have a clear provenance for most of these items, but a lot can be deduced by examining them — if you know what you’re looking at. Luckily, Claire does!

Woman straightening woven blanket on quilt frame.

Claire at work

Red and cream woven blanket, closeup

Woven pattern, with visible seam between pieces

Technically, all seven blankets they photographed aren’t strictly quilts. Two are woven textiles. The one in red and cream checkerboards and stripes (left) was made on a small loom, probably at someone’s home. Claire pointed out that you can see where multiple strips of the woven material were sewn together to create the full blanket.

Another woven blanket (in salmon, blue, and teal, above) was apparently made on a larger loom, given that it isn’t pieced from strips. It may not have been super mass manufactured, though. One corner of the blanket shows a name and location, maybe that of the weaver or the intended recipient, suggesting that it was done on commission, perhaps even locally to its owner.

Red and white applique quilt

Applique quilt

The other five blankets are definitely quilts. What makes them different? According to, a quilt is “a textile sandwich consisting of two pieces of fabric with a filling between them. The upper layer, or top, is decorative. The bottom, or backing, is usually, but not always, rather plain. The filling, or batting, provides the warmth and loft” (source). That top generally consists of smaller pieces that have been sewn together.

However, the first one they shot, in red and white (right), employs a lot of applique. This is a technique where smaller pieces of fabric are sewn onto a large piece of fabric, rather than cobbled together to form the top. It’s easy to see that the red has been done this way, but if you look closely, there are also white elements appliqued to the white background.

Closeup of crazy quilt, greens and blues, with red ties

Tied crazy quilt

Two of the blankets are crazy quilts, so called because they are pieced together from irregular scraps and can look rather chaotic, a mix of colors, textures, and shapes. One is done in satins and silks, and it has a dagged edge, resembling the pointed or leaf-shaped edge you would be most likely to see in medieval costumes.

While most of the quilts they photographed were quilted in the typical manner, with lines of stitches holding together the top, batting, and backing, one of the crazy quilts (left) is tied. In tied quilting, the simplest way of holding the layers together, yarn or thread is pulled through at intervals and knotted. In the case of this particular quilt, the ties are bright red, so Claire said they were likely meant to be decorative, not just functional.

Closeup of white, yellow, and red "names" quilt, seen folded on top of two crazy quilts

Embroidered name quilt

The tied crazy quilt also features embroidery, not a quilting technique so much as a general way of using ornamental stitches to add decoration to fabric, in this case the quilt top. Embroidery is used on several of the blankets, but it’s used to particularly striking effect in the hand quilted yellow and white name quilt (right). It is made of 30 large squares, nearly identical except that each has a different set of names embroidered into it. This may indicate they were done by several different people and combined into one blanket. After all, quilting has traditionally been a type of communal work, with many hands contributing to a finished product.

Closeup of Halloween quilt label

Halloween quilt label

Even in this day and age, when there’s not the same desperate necessity of shared labor, quilters tend to be community oriented. One of the most well-known American quilting communities is Gees Bend, in Wilcox County, Alabama. Its roots go back generations. A modern Gees Bend quilt with a Halloween motif (left) was among the pieces they photographed. Like most quilts, it has a label, in this case indicating not only the maker’s name but also additional information about where it came from and who it’s for. For more on this quilt, check out a classic post from our sister blog, Cool@Hoole.

The Photo Shoot

While Jeremiah has had to take down the mounted camera and use it to shoot framed objects, he’s never captured any of the collections’ textiles. Fortunately, the technical aspects of the process were relatively straightforward. The bigger challenge was often in wrangling the quilts themselves.

View of a quilt on a quilt frame, seen from over the shoulder of a man behind a camera tripod.

Jeremiah at work

The setup was deceptively simple: each blanket was draped over a borrowed quilt frame and shot against a black drop cloth. One of our cameras, a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, got a vacation from its usual downward-facing mounting and was set up on a tripod. Traveling along with it were the lights, which had to be rearranged quite a bit to get the right effect.

To know how to present each quilt — whether as a full piece or to focus on some component like a motif, edge, or label — we needed to know why it was chosen. After consulting the book’s rough draft, Jeremiah and Claire worked out what would make the most sense to illustrate the writer’s ideas. Still, there were judgment calls. Old textiles can be stained or have holes. Does one photograph the cleanest area or the most representative? Sometimes, those aren’t the same thing. Or take this woven piece:

Which is the “right” side — with the cream color as the background, or with the cream color as the contrast? In the end, they photographed it both ways.

Closeup of "dagged" edge quilt, yellow, maroon, and blue, in shiny satin fabric

Shiny crazy quilt with dagged edge

There were only a few technical challenges. The satin and silk crazy quilt (left) was difficult to properly light because it was so shiny, with each fabric piece picking up and reflecting light. Without some intervention, this shine added up to a very bright image. To combat this, Jeremiah adjusted the polarizing filter on the lens to block out the light coming from certain directions, bringing the overall image into a proper exposure.

Halloween quilt with bright orange fabric

Bright orange Halloween quilt

The Halloween quilt (right) was also challenging, but for a different reason. Something about that particular tone of bright orange was outside of the camera sensor’s comfort zone. For the wide shot of the blanket, Jeremiah had to make a few adjustments in Photoshop to get things under control. For the closeup shot, they were able to use one of our everyday mounted camera setups. The Canon EOS 6D’s sensor apparently doesn’t mind that shade of orange.

Good Results, Sore Muscles

On the whole, the process was pretty successful, if not a bit tiring. Jeremiah admitted that the height of the quilt frame was made for display, not for photography, so the tripod — and the photographer! — had to be set rather low in order to keep things centered and level. Claire reported that quilts are a lot heavier than they look, especially when you have to handle them all day and sometimes lift them over your head!

A woman and man holding opposite sides of a red and white applique quilt

Expert quilt wranglers!

Hidden Gem: Storytelling from Bill Martin Jr.

Cover image of the children's book Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See?, written by Bill Martin Jr. and illustrated by Eric CarleIf you don’t know the name Bill Martin Jr., you probably know the name of his most famous book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, illustrated by Eric Carle (The Very Hungry Caterpillar.) Just two years after that book was published, Martin spoke at an education conference at UA, the audio of which has recently been digitized as part of the Alabama Reel to Reel Collection.

Martin was an educator as well as a storyteller. He came to reading through memorizing and reciting poetry, and he believed that others might do the same (source). His children’s books are full of clever but simple rhymes, and his spoken storytelling was driven by the same impulse to create interesting rhythms and sounds.

Martin was here at UA in 1969 to give a speech about education, but like a good storyteller, he couldn’t begin until he’d captured his audience’s attention. Give a listen to Martin’s speech, especially the first eight minutes, where he takes the audience “up in the mountains” to hear the tale of a fiddler and his trip to the Essex County Fair.

A (Leap) Day in the Life: February 29

It’s been a while since we did a survey of Acumen‘s contents by taking a look at just one day. There have been fewer February 29ths than other days of the year, but, as with any other snapshot view, items from that date reveal a world not too terribly different from ours.

Here’s a selection of Leap Day items, 1840-1968. (Click on any of them thumbnails to see a larger version.)



February 1956: When the Eyes of the World Were on Us

Sixty years ago, the first major step was made toward desegregating the University of Alabama. Autherine Lucy, a black woman from Shiloh, Alabama, was enrolled – and a few days later suspended, eventually expelled, though she had done nothing wrong.

We tend to focus on 1963, on the bizarre segregationist pageantry of the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, perhaps because it was ultimately unsuccessful. This week, we want to focus on something harder to take in but just as important to remember: when segregation unfortunately won.

In addition to this post, see the entry on our sister blog, Cool at Hoole: Chronicling UA’s First Steps Toward Desegregation.

While Acumen is not home to many items chronicling Autherine Lucy’s enrollment in UA and the resultant backlash, it does hold one important resource: digitized copies of the Crimson White from February 1956.

The issues of February 7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th reflect the campus’s own view of the events, everything from photos of a lonely Lucy to images of the crowds protesting her presence, from reports of hooliganism to apologies proffered to UA President Oliver Carmichael.

One especially interesting part of the coverage is the response of outsiders — from across the state, the country, and even the world. In the February 14 issue, the CW gave over three pages to just some of two hundred or so letters addressed to the newspaper, the community, or the students themselves.

Read them in their entirety here (click on the thumbnails) or see the highlights that follow.

Continue reading

The World of Camp Aliceville

Like hundreds of other communities in the U.S. during WWII, Aliceville, Alabama, was home to a prisoner of war camp. Between June 1943 and September 1945, Camp Aliceville saw hundreds of thousands of German soldiers come and go, a time which left an impression on both the men and the town.

We are lucky enough to have digital versions of 16 audio interviews given in the mid-1990s by people involved with the camp, including staff and townspeople as well as six former prisoners: Gene Dakan Kenneth Eugene, Walter Fetholter, Theo Klein, Henrich Most, Wilhelm Schlegel, and Karl Silberreis. (The recordings of Klein and Most are in German.)

Most range from 10-30 minutes. Here’s one of the shorter ones, at around 2 minutes, as a sneak peek:

Interview with Elma Henders Emerson

Emerson talks about the state of the Germans when they came, how they filled the hospital, their initial eating habits, and their help in the kitchen.

To hear the other 15 recordings, visit the German Prisoners of War in Aliceville Collection in Acumen. To learn more about the camp, check out the website for the Aliceville Museum.

Holiday Cheer

Every year since 1969, the Department of Music at UA has presented a Christmas program called Hilaritas. It includes a variety of holiday-themed music, mixing traditional carols and standards with modern pop songs and new arrangements.

Earlier this year, we digitized the audio from some of the earliest Hilaritas programs. Below, you’ll find links to each, as well as a sample track to whet your appetite.

Hilaritas 1970 (single reel)

Sample Track: Medley: The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire); Deck the Halls; Angels We Have Heard; We Wish You a Merry Christmas

Hilaritas 1971 (reel one, reel two, reel three)

Sample Track: For Unto Us a Child is Born, from Handel’s Messiah

Hilaritas 1972 (reel one, reel two, reel three)

Sample Track: O Holy Night (carol sing)

Hilaritas 1973 (reel one, reel two)

Sample Track: The Christmas Waltz

Hilaritas 1974 (reel one, reel two)

Sample Track: Medley: Christmas Present, Snow Ball of a Time, What are you doing New Year’s Eve?

Willie T. White’s Persistent Suitor

Normally, we don’t get caught up in reading what we’re digitizing, but some collections beg for more attention. Over the spring, the incoming correspondence of Ms. Willie Teresa White (1898-1990) caught they eye of our former colleague, Jessica, such that she began to dig deeper. What she found was a woman happy to be a friend to many young men — including nearly two dozen WWI soldiers — but ultimately unwilling to take the further step of marrying.

In a future post, we’ll see just where all those soldiers were stationed and why they might’ve been writing to a woman they in most cases didn’t even know. Today, we’ll look at her correspondence with one of her serious suitors, the persistent Leonard Hughen.

Based on what we find in the Willie T. White papers, Leonard (bless his heart) sent her at least 169 pieces of correspondence over a period of about 5 years. Though we often don’t know where he is, he’s sometimes in Jacksonville, Montgomery, or Rockford, Alabama. The latter was Willie’s hometown, so he might’ve known her for much of her life. Unlike some of her correspondents who address her by a nickname (Cubbie or Cub), he always addresses her as Willie T.

The earliest of his letters is from 1915, like this one sent in April, where he expresses happiness at her apparent recent religious awakening. (In his words, she’s “decided to get on the right side with Christ.”) He apologizes for being so serious in speaking about religion, but he wants her to know that he is “deeply interested” in her.

Later in the letter, he tells her how he feels much more directly:

This is certainly sweet and sincere, but as we read more letters during the scanning process, we came to the conclusion that Leonard was a bit clingy, or at least more interested in her than she was in him. Witness this plea, six months later:

He has similar concerns in January 1916, writing, “Have I done anything to make you mad with me?” In that letter, he reveals himself to be more than a bit gloomy and melodramatic, ending thus:

In October of that year, he writes her speaking of a “proposition” he’s made, undoubtedly a marriage proposal. However, he fears her reply and must plead his case:

Later in the letter, he assures her that he understands her well and that he sees how she’s different from other girls, which is precisely why he loves her. He concludes: “Without you, my life would be a desperate failure.”

In general, Leonard’s correspondence is full of melodramatic exaggeration, like his closing in a letter of May 1919: “My Dear you know I love you, and you are the sweetest person on earth to me. I dream of you most every night and I would give anything in my power to see you.”

Over the course of their correspondence, Leonard does everything he can to prove he cares for her, and whether she believes him to be sincere or not is no matter: she never agrees to marry him. By 1919, he seems to have accepted this, taking instead the part of friend and adviser. In his letter of October 1919 he counsels her on a rumor he heard about her potential marriage:

In April 1920, there’s some confusion as to whether he wants her to stop writing to him. He certainly does not! Though he passive-aggressively mentions that she (unlike he) has never said I Love You, he says he will continue to look for her letters, as she is “the best friend [he] ever possessed.”

However, he never quite gives up hope; at the very least, his feelings never waver. In May 1920, he writes: “Willie T. you can’t imagine how I think of you and it will simply break my heart to have to give you up, I would rather not exist but I guess we can endure most anything that we are compelled to.”

Perhaps Leonard could endure Willie’s rejections in part because she never accepted anyone else either. So what did she do with this life of hers, not tied down to a husband? According to the finding aid for the collection,

As of 1920, Willie was employed as a stenographer at the Young Women’s Christian Association in Birmingham. By the late 1920s, Miss White had moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where she would reside for the majority of her life. During the Great Depression, Willie and her mother, Kate White, were operators of the Blue Lantern Tea Room in Tuscaloosa. After World War II, Willie worked as an occupational therapist at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Tuscaloosa. Late in her life, Willie was a resident of Hatley Health Care in Clanton, Alabama. Willie White passed away on July 6, 1990, at the age of 92.

Newly Online: James B. Tipton papers

This year for Veterans Day, we celebrate a man who was a veteran twice over during his long career in the military.

Major General James B. Tipton was a pilot and pilot instructor with the United States Army Air Forces (later the United States Air Force). He served in World War II and in the Korean War. Recently, some items came our way tell the story of his career. While they weren’t ultimately donated to the Hoole Special Collections Library, the family graciously allowed us to digitize them.

For more information on Tipton, see this bio at the U.S. Air Force webpage.

Scrapbook, 1934-1944

Two photos from Scrapbook of Major General James B. Tipton, 1934-1944

Photographs of University of Alabama football players, including the team’s trip to the Rose Bowl in 1938, and images from Tipton’s service in World War II.

View online


Scrapbook, 1939-1968

Collage of postcard and photo from Scrapbook of Major General James B. Tipton, 1939-1968Photos and newspaper clippings, mostly of his time training and teaching at Randolph Field and Ballenger Field, both in Texas.

View online


U. S. Air Force Oral History Interview, July 15, 1985


Lengthy document describing his service in World War II and the Korean War, including discussion of flight training.

View online

Fleeting Sounds

Usually when we think of ephemera — items that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles [source] — we think of documents. Paper is the medium of choice for these transitory items, from ticket stubs and playbills to flyers and menus to… phonograph records?

Recently, our audio guru Corinne digitized three “cardboard” records. These are playable but not particularly long lasting records made of paste paper coated in a thin layer or vinyl or acetate. Such records often served as promotional items or, in the case of the Recordio specimens in our collection, audio recordings created by the average person in a public booth.

These particular records captured the voices of two African-American children as they were shopping in 1946. Click on the record sleeves below to go to the items in Acumen.

Rozmon Kennon (10 years old)
recording of the voice of Rozmon Kennon, 1946, Birmingham, Alabama

Dannetta Kennon (8 years old)
recording of the voice of Dannetta Kennon, 1946, Birmingham, Alabama

Not only were these fascinating to listen to, but digitizing them was vital — we needed to more permanently capture these voices before the fragile medium they were recorded on broke down. There was no special equipment required, just an abundance of caution!

For more on various odd record types, including the Recordio, check out this website devoted to the subject: The Internet Museum of Flexi/Cardboard/Oddity Records.

Becoming Kappa

1928 image of the Gamma Pi chapter of Kappa Kappa Gamma, with individual photos of 19 girlsWhen we say goodbye to buildings, we often say hello to interesting things that finally come out of them as their inhabitants prepare for demolition. Over the summer, we got to digitize one such discovery: a scrapbook of chartering documents from the UA chapter of Kappa Kappa Gamma.

There are two common paths to creating a chapter of a national Greek organization. One is to do so directly, working with the organization to establish a colony, a probationary form of chapter. The other is to establish a strong local fraternity or sorority and subsequently seek chapter status from the national.

In 1926, the “local” Alpha Pi took that second path, petitioning Kappa Kappa Gamma national women’s fraternity to be brought in as a chapter. Part of that petition involved recommendations from peers, which they later gathered in a scrapbook.

From Fellow Kappas

The first materials in the book are from Kappa Kappa Gamma actives and alumnae who were near enough geographically to visit…and to have a vested interest in seeing the group spread further in the South.

Typed copy of letter from Lucy Sharpe, Beta Chi, 1925, undated

Letter from Lucy Sharpe, undated

For example, Elizabeth Van der Veer, of the Beta Omicron chapter (Tulane), writes to the national that she visited the girls at their request and “came away very much ‘sold’ on them.” They were “bright, energetic, enthusiastic, and attractive.” She adds, “We southern Kappas are few and far between, and we are anxious to have more chapters down our way.”

Lucy Sharpe, of the Beta Chi chapter (University of Kentucky), agrees, saying, “Kappa needs to come into the South. The best of Alabama’s young girls attend the University. There is no large national fraternity on the campus. Why can’t Kappa step in and take her place at this opportune time? The University wants and needs us.”

Letters were also sent from local alumnae originating in chapters at the University of Oklahoma, University of Cincinnati, and The Ohio State University.

From Fraternities

Men’s fraternities on campus were important witnesses to the character of the local. Letters went out from UA chapters of 12 fraternities: Alpha Tau Omega, Sigma Chi, Delta Tau Delta, Delta Kappa Epsilon, Kappa Alpha, Phi Delta Theta, Phi Kappa Alpha, Lambda Chi Alpha, Pi Kappa Alpha, Phi Gamma Delta, Sigma Nu, and Pi Kappa Phi.

Handwritten letter from Julien Smith, Jr., on behalf of the UA chapter of Phi Delta Theta, July 9, 1926

Letter on behalf of the UA chapter of Phi Delta Theta, July 9, 1926

According to Pi Kappa Alpha’s letter, “It would be difficult indeed to select a group of higher character and of greater promise than this particular group.” The Delta Tau Delta letter says, “if you should see fit to grant them a charter, we think you will always be glad of having done so.”

The Alpha Tau Omega letter reminds us that this is about the reputation of the national organization as much as the petitioning group: “Surely Kappa Kappa Gamma is desirous of having chapters in such institutions as Alabama not only promises to be, but as Alabama is today. …it is an ideal opportunity and one that in our estimation is very rare which should not be passed on lightly.”

The letter from Delta Kappa Epsilon provides some concrete background to situation. By their count, there were 500 female students and only 8 sororities. They find that “the limited number of Sororities is woefully inadequate as compared with the large number of girl students.”

From Other Sororities

There were, indeed, few women’s groups on campus at that time, but they all wrote to the Kappa Kappa Gamma national, perhaps with an eye to raising the overall profile of the campus. Letters were sent from the UA chapters of all 7 current sororities: Delta Delta Delta, Chi Omega, Alpha Gamma Delta, Alpha Chi Omega, Kappa Delta, Delta Zeta, and Zeta Tau Alpha.

Handwritten letter from Margaret Brown, on behalf of herself and the Nu Beta chapter of Chi Omega, July 12, 1926

Letter on behalf of the Nu Beta chapter of Chi Omega, July 12, 1926

Kappa Delta argues that given how women’s enrollment had “practically doubled itself in the part four years,” Kappa Kappa Gamma was needed. They assure the organization that they will find an easy path at UA: “The policy of the University official has always been one of welcome and aid to sororities and fraternities. This feature has helped to make the institution a stronghold for the Greek world.”

Alpha Chi Omega praises the group’s character, their leadership and “fineness of Southern womanhood.” The Alpha Gamma Delta province president notes their ability to maintain these high standards over several years and declares, “I feel sure that they would measure up to the responsibilities placed upon them.” Delta Zeta proclaims that the organization “will be well repaid” if it admits them.

Finally, Delta Delta Delta writes that the group is “worthy,”  and it is “looking forward to welcoming another member of the ‘Big Four’ to campus.”

It did welcome that group in 1927, when Pi Alpha became the Gamma Pi chapter of Kappa Kappa Gamma, still active today.